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You Only Live Once: How College Binge Drinkers Miss Out

How much alcohol would a young woman need to drink to register a .341?

Student who bragged about her dangerously high BAC
Once again, the public is trying to make sense of the wild, drug-fueled antics of a misguided youth. On August 31, 22-year-old Samantha Goudie tried to storm the field at a University of Iowa football game and shocked police when a breathalyzer test registered a blood alcohol content (BAC) of.341, over four times the legal limit. Nonapologetic and even boastful, she tweeted from the police station, “Just went to jail #yolo” (translation: you only live once) and “I'm going to get .341 tattooed on me because its so epic.”

How much alcohol would a young woman need to drink to register a .341? It depends what she drank and how quickly she did it, but for a 120-pound woman, it would take about nine drinks in one hour. Just one more could’ve brought her BAC over .35 – the point at which drinkers are apt to stop breathing. If she made a night of her partying, spreading her drinks out over four or five hours, she likely had 10 or 11 drinks.

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Around .30, drinkers are unaware of what they’re doing and what’s happening around them. They are at risk of passing out suddenly and may be difficult to awaken. By .35, people may stop breathing. A blood alcohol level of .40 is linked with slowed heartbeat and respiration and coma. There have been reported alcohol-related deaths at each of these blood alcohol levels.

With a BAC of .341, how was Goudie conscious and, by police accounts, no more than “unsteady on her feet?” Given the videos surfacing online and her Twitter alias @Vodka_Samm, there’s a good chance that she has been drinking heavily for quite some time and, at 22, has developed a high tolerance to alcohol.

Lucky to Be Alive

Goudie is lucky to be alive. Lucky, but not unscathed. The harsh judgments and verbal attacks that followed reports of the incident apparently caused her to delete her 20,000-follower Twitter account. That’s just the beginning. Courtesy of media reports, there is a complete record of her misdeeds plastered on the Internet for prospective employers, colleagues and friends to see for years to come.

Even more problematic is the damage she may already have done to her still-developing brain and body. Alcohol is a dangerous drug. Binge drinking during youth can have a number of negative effects on the brain, including impaired memory and visual learning and brain shrinkage. These effects may last well into adulthood. Because binge drinking interferes with the brain’s ability to process glucose, it also increases the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Binge drinking doesn’t necessarily mean someone is an alcoholic. Nevertheless, it’s a dangerous pattern. Binge drinking accounts for more than 40,000 deaths each year and increases the risk of violence, drunk-driving accidents, sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancies, and health problems such as liver disease, cancer and heart disease.

Chances are Goudie wasn’t thinking about all of this when she ran out onto that field.

Spotlight on College Binge-Drinking Culture

Before closing her account Goudie took to Twitter to defend herself, saying, “Ive gotten so many hate tweets because I was drunk…uh I get good grades sorry for being like every other college student.” Although overly dismissive of her degree of drunkenness, Goudie makes a valid point.

Heavy drinking is pervasive among people in their early twenties. One in four teens and young adults admits to binge drinking (defined as consuming about four drinks for men or three drinks for women in about two hours). Not so dissimilar from Goudie’s highly publicized binge, college-age partiers average nine drinks when they get drunk.

Not only do many young people not follow government drinking guidelines (which recommend no more than 14 drinks per week or four drinks per day for men, and seven drinks per week or three drinks per day for women), many don’t even know what responsible alcohol consumption looks like. 

Why not just have one or two drinks instead of nine or 10? Research shows that binge drinking is a way for college students to improve their social standing and gain the acceptance of their peers. This could explain, at least in part, why Goudie would publicly brag about blowing a .341 and talk about memorializing the incident in a tattoo. It could also explain why amidst the scathing remarks of onlookers are cheers and even requests for dates from other young people.

Another reason binge drinking is particularly common among young adults is the feeling of invincibility. Many young people can’t imagine anything bad happening because of their drinking, such as getting into an accident or becoming addicted. Combined with a biological tendency toward risk-taking at this age, it’s not surprising that young people focus on the perceived benefits of drinking rather than the risks.

YOLO Meet YODO

Goudie is right about another thing: You only live once. Why waste it on drinking binges you won’t even remember? For decades, young people have been told “carpe diem – seize the day.” We don’t want people to waste their too-short lives; we want them to relish every moment. But it’s equally dangerous to lose sight of the fact that – if all goes as planned – life is long and our behaviors have consequences.

You only live once, but you also only die once. Goudie is lucky this wasn’t that time. With help from the people who care about her, hopefully this won’t be another notch in her drinking belt but rather the wake-up call she and her family needed to make some important changes. With help, perhaps Goudie can discover the many (non-alcoholic) ways to make this one life the best it can possibly be and others can learn from her example.

David Sack, M.D. is board certified in Addiction Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine and serves as CEO of Elements Behavioral Health and Promises Treatment Centers.

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